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Christopher Hyde

Christopher Hyde's Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram.

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Posted: October 27, 2014

Portland Symphony Orchestra’s Sunday concert confuses with questionable musical choices

Written by: Christopher Hyde
 Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

Concert programs often sandwich a difficult work between two favorites to make the filling more palatable to audiences. The first Sunday concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, at Merrill Auditorium, was a sandwich of a different kind, with the extremely popular Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16 between two rather questionable choices.

The program opened with an extremely difficult orchestral tour-de-force, a “Fanfare Ritmico” by Jennifer Higdon (b.1962) which sounded like Leroy Anderson’s “Typewriter” on psychedelic drugs. It is full of polyrhythms, percussive sound effects and violent dynamic shifts, meant to depict the frenetic pace and fragmentation of modern life, something some of us go to concerts to forget.

Clever, and fascinating at first, but not worth what must have been extensive rehearsal time.

Pianist Conrad Tao went for brilliance and clarity in a noteworthy performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto. In addition to technical skill, he also demonstrated a Romantic sensibility in the adagio and the wistful penultimate passages of the final allegro moderato. His cadenzas were well thought-out, including some pauses so long that one began to think he had lost his place.

It may have been Grieg’s orchestration, but the opening section seemed a little thin at times, rapidly becoming more full as the work progressed.

There was the usual fight over tempo between pianist and conductor, with the piano winning the first round and accelerating almost too fast for control. The second two movements showed better balance, except for a few measures when the orchestra drowned out the piano.

Tao received a long standing ovation, too long, it turned out, since he decided to play an encore. I like the final movement of the Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 7 as much as anyone, but both the sonata and the concerto were spoiled by Tao’s self-indulgence.

The final work on the program, the lengthy Symphony No. 12 in D Minor, of Dmitri Shostakovich, was a puzzlement, unless music director Robert Moody wanted a piece that would show off every section of the orchestra ad infinitum.

Written to commemorate the victory of the proletariat in 1917, the symphony is beautifully orchestrated but goes nowhere. All four movements are played without a pause, making it difficult to distinguish honest labor from bourgeois tendencies or capitalist repression. And Shostakovich hasn’t a clue about how to end it.

The program notes speculate about the composer’s hidden messages and possible defiance of the Communist regime. I have another theory. No commissar could object to a musical depiction of the worker’s paradise, so why not let it go on so long that every party official attending the performance would either fall asleep or die before the conclusion. Just a thought…

Portland Symphony Orchestra, Merrill Auditorium
Reviewed Oct. 26

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